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Posted by on Jul 30, 2008 in Politics | 19 comments

McCain’s Increasingly Negative Campaign Begins Worrying Some Republicans


Yes, Virginia, there are some in the GOP who don’t think likely Republican Presidential candidate Senator John McCain’s negative campaigning blitz is a good idea….

In recent weeks McCain’s campaign has more than ever begun to resemble exactly the kind of campaign many independent voters have long said they don’t like to see: a Rovian-style negative campaign where the focus is on seek-and-destroy attacks aimed at character more than policy, quick response negative campaigning, versus a campaign based on issues where a candidate aggressively outlines his or her vision of the future.

And it starts a cycle: the other side will then feel it has to respond in kind.

The danger for McCain is that some independents are starting to conclude that the John McCain who they may have backed in 2000 and rooted for in the Republican primaries is starting to vanish in a crowd of Karl Rove proteges and campaign advisers who feel the way to win is to by demonizing Obama and Democrats and by aiming for yet one more party base mobilization election.

And this worries some Republicans:

In recent days Senator John McCain has charged that Senator Barack Obama “would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign,” tarred him as “Dr. No” on energy policy and run advertisements calling him responsible for high gas prices.

The old happy warrior side of Mr. McCain has been eclipsed a bit lately by a much more aggressive, and more negative, Mr. McCain who hammers Mr. Obama repeatedly on policy differences, experience and trustworthiness.

By doing so, Mr. McCain is clearly trying to sow doubts about his younger opponent, and bring him down a peg or two. But some Republicans worry that by going negative so early, and initiating so many of the attacks himself rather than leaving them to others, Mr. McCain risks coming across as angry or partisan in a way that could turn off some independents who have been attracted by his calls for respectful campaigning.

The drumbeat of attacks could also undermine his argument that he will champion a new brand of politics.

In reality, the damage is probably already done. The growing sharpness of McCain’s campaign rhetoric, its focus on responding to Obama and verging on name calling that sometimes seems akin to a “troll” in a blog comments section just doesn’t jibe with the 2000 John McCain. And if he manages to win a campaign on this basis, he will take over the Oval Office with a reservoir of polarization-hubris-bad-will that will make it difficult for Democrats to work with him or risk backlash from their constituents.

(Be sure to read the UPDATE further down in this post…)

“The McCain campaign, I think, is being pulled in two directions,” said Todd Harris, a Republican strategist who worked for Mr. McCain in 2000. “On the one hand, this race is largely a referendum on Obama, and whether or not he’s going to pass the leadership threshold in the eyes of voters. So being aggressive against Obama on questions of leadership and trust and risk are important, but at the same time I think they need to be very careful because McCain is not at his best when he is being overly partisan and negative.”

The McCain campaign said that Mr. Obama had been taking shots at Mr. McCain for some time, and that Mr. McCain was simply trying to draw the contrast between the two candidates.

That’s a good response spin — but it’s not quite true. McCain is indeed drawing “contrasts” — but it is the tone, anger and seeming contempt with which McCain is speaking that is drawing the attention.

Many analysts have noted in recent weeks that McCain has now moved from being someone promising a more high-minded campaign to someone whose campaign is resembling the same kind of aggressive Karl Rove style campaign that unfolded in 2000 and 2004. Those campaigns worked. But they also helped perpetuate an era of political polarization and ill-will that many had felt McCain could help end.

Criticism of McCain has not only come from Democrats, unnamed Republicans who talk to reporters and independent voters who he’ll need to win,. A sign of the emerging conventional wisdom is seen in this Politico post which contains former Gov. Mike Huckabee’s comment in his role as a Fox News contributor on how McCain responded to Obama’s media-saturated overseas trip last week:

Frankly, I thought he looked more like Bob Dole in the last days of the 1996 campaign saying ‘look at the record, look at the record,’ and there was some anger and sense of frustration there.

He shouldn’t show that. He needs to show that nothing is getting to him, it’s rolling off his back, and I think he missed an opportunity to do that last week.

And, indeed, most articles and posts — including those written by yours truly — have been polite in characterizing the McCain campaign’s evolving tone: it is now morphing into the epitome of the kind of campaigns run by the late Lee Atwater and Rove with the same kind of angry, lashing-out character attacks that led some to also criticize the latter part of Senator Hillary Clinton’s Democratic primary campaign. It isn’t a shift in gears away from the polarizing politics of the 1980s-2008 but a continuation of it.

Writes Marc Ambinder:

The contempt that many McCain aides hold for Barack Obama rivals the contempt that McCain held for Mitt Romney a year ago. McCain’s advisers know that McCain is apt to treat those held in contempt contemptuously, but no inside McCain’s campaign believes that aggressively negative television ads and McCain’s public dismissals will “damage one of the most unique and most popular brands in American politics.”

The cadre of McCain allies who aren’t part of the campaign are very worried. They believe that McCain’s current crop of advisers are playing to his worse instincts, particularly his pride and his ego. When McCain is privately content, he comes across publicly as happy-go-lucky and magnanimous; satisfied; when he is combative, he comes off as combative and reactive. They worry that he is obsessed with Obama’s character and willing to attribute motives to Obama that are simply unbelievable outside of an echo chamber filled with those who are predisposed to believe Obama’s a phony.

This would include cable and radio talk shows that echo the official line. Since July 1 I have been on a drive through 3 states, sometime driving 650 miles in a single day. I have listened to a lot of talk radio and many of the conservative radio shows are wall-to-wall medleys of anti-Obama riffs that mirror McCain or GOP strategy.

Two other things on this subject:

1. Nowhere can you note the glaring failure of progressive talk radio more than on a drive like this. With the exception of picking up a few hours of progressive talker Ed Schultz, all talk shows on the stations are conservative ones, all basically putting out the same message.

2. The newest rant on some shows is linking up Obama to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as part of a do-nothing, obstructionist Democratic Congress run by a corrupt Democratic party. Prediction: this will be a big GOP theme soon.

Ambinder also writes this:

Concerns about whether McCain is coming off too mean, [McCain camp associates] say, are irrelevant. The media, they believe, has created double standard that allows them to view Obama’s contempt for McCain as in-bounds and McCain’s attempts to draw contrasts with Obama as out-of-bounds.

But there is a difference. McCain’s contention that Obama WANTS to lose the Iraq war (a statement he refused to back down from) and the TV ad claiming Obama wouldn’t visit wounded U.S. troops because they wouldn’t let TV cameras follow him (a charge NBC’s Andrea Mitchell said is “literally not true..”) were comments you would not expect out of the 2000, independent-voter-friendly edition of McCain.

(UPDATE: A Washington Post reporter looking into the charges about Obama not going to visit the troops due to cameras has found that the McCain camp’s charge “lacks evidence.”

For four days, Sen. John McCain and his allies have accused Sen. Barack Obama of snubbing wounded soldiers by canceling a visit to a military hospital because he could not take reporters with him, despite no evidence that the charge is true.

The attacks are part of a newly aggressive McCain operation whose aim is to portray the Democratic presidential candidate as a craven politician more interested in his image than in ailing soldiers, a senior McCain adviser said. They come despite repeated pledges by the Republican that he will never question his rival’s patriotism.

Read the entire report — and note how the campaign is sticking with and repeating the charge even when a reporter asks for specifics and is given info that is not deemed proof.)

And, in fact, the media has long respected McCain, who has been highly accessible and a superb quote machine — providing quotations of both style and substance. Many progressives still criticize the media for giving McCain “a pass” on a lot of things. Obama is a new news commodity and so in the nature of “news” he’s getting lots of coverage….which could, by the way, turn on Obama on a dime (and before the campaign is over, it likely will).

McCain’s problem in campaign 2008 is that he is in danger of losing a chunk of the independents who felt he was a candidate with a more thoughtful and positive vision.

He risks alienating the media when he throws down the gauntlet as they focus on the newer political story.

He risks losing the chance of picking up some Democratic support as he veers into political territory where he is just one more partisan Republican demonizing a Democratic candidate or letting surrogates go after the entire Democratic party, rather than presenting an exciting vision of the future and poking holes in his foe’s ideas in a substantive way.

The Democrats seem poised to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

And as that perception surfaces: so does John McCain.

Cartoon by Daryl Cagle, MSNBC

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Copyright 2008 The Moderate Voice
  • Marlowecan

    I have to disagree with Joe here.

    When the New York Times — a paper with a history of hostilty to the GOP in general, and more lately McCain in particular (see sloppily sourced, innuendo laden, front-page above the fold, thinly veiled accusations of extramarital affairs) – features a story based on the weasel words “Some Republicans…” (Who? Lots of Republicans in the US.) urging McCain to be kind to the Democrats — one should start checking one’s wallet.

    Joe said: “And it starts a cycle: the other side will then feel it has to respond in kind”; “or letting surrogates go after the entire Democratic party,

    But the “other side” (i.e., the Democrats) have been slagging McCain for months.
    — See above NYT smear (massively criticized across the US media as a smear, and appalling journalism).
    — See a wide range of Democratic surrogates in the blogosphere…who have openly accused McCain of betraying the United States while a POW (Americablog)…of illegitimately milking/faking his disability from being a POW (Americablog)…of not being presidential material because of his bad teeth (Markos himself).

    God, MediaMatters/ThinkProgress daily FULL CAPS “shocked and appalled” headers attacking McCain are relentless.

    Obama can be “Mr.Clean” precisely BECAUSE his allies in the liberal blogosphere and the media are flinging crap daily at McCain.

    McCain and his campaign are understandably frustrated. There was a whining tone in their complaints with Obama was in Europe…and they quickly turned that dial down.

    This comment of Joe’s is, I think, enormously significant:

    “He risks alienating the media when he throws down the gauntlet as they focus on the newer political story.”

    BUT…the media wants to focus on Obama, their newest bright and shining story.
    The MSM had to be shamed by Tina Fey…of all people…into stepping back from their High School Musical crush during the primaries.

    The media MUST be shamed and embarrassed. My God…when I saw that wall of Newsweek covers with the praying Obama “What he believes” in an airport on the west coast last week I almost gagged.

    McCain needs to fight. He needs to hammer Obama relentlessly. Clinton learned this too late.

    The MSM will whine as Obama is attacked…not “our” Obama, you are SOOO mean Old Man McCain!…but McCain has to do this.

    Otherwise, as Huckabee implied, McCain will be “Bob Dole Redux”.

  • Marlowecan

    Lots of fascinating bits in this post. Another line jumps out at me:

    Joe said: “…the media has long respected McCain…”

    This is true. But again, I am reminded of the media’s respect for Bob Dole in 1996. The media didn’t respect Bill Clinton at all, BUT . . . again, in a sadly High School Musical way . . . they preferred to go home with their latest crush than with that earnest guy they had known and taken for granted for years.

    The media know their wall-to-wall coverage of Obama is boosting him. It doesn’t matter if they criticize him in the voiceovers…the images are GOLD. This has been a basic truism of American politics since Diane Sawyer’s infamous “critique” of Reagan in 1984 earned her this accolade from the Reagan White House, as Sawyer recounts:
    “”Diane,” he replied, “you don’t understand. No one listens to the news. People watch the news. It is television and they are viewers. You gave us eight minutes of golden images. We couldn’t have paid for better publicity. We owe you one.”

  • superdestroyer

    Since McCain has zero chance of winning, does it really matter that he goes negative or not? I guess whining about McCain’s negative ads gives the media an excuse not to review any of Senator Obama’s policy positions. The media has probably spent more time wondering who McCain will pick for vice-president instead of looking at possible Senator Obama’s running mates.

    Also, the media should be reporting how few people are really undecided instead of talking about some non-specific group of swing voters that probably do not exist.

  • Neocon

    Barak Obama is only half black……fact

    Oh thats negative and racist.

    Barak Obama has a muslim name………..fact.

    Oh thats negative and racist.

    Barak Obama can’t bowl………..fact

    Oh thats negative and racist.

    No matter what is said about Barak Obama. No matter what. If it does not agree with him it is negative.

    The Left defined the debate over the war and they won and won big. They learned after years of being beaten into the ground by defending what they believed and losing big time that it was best to define the battle. That is what this is all about. Defining the battle.

    Dont be negative. Negative is evil. If your negative your an evil Republican. Republicans are evil. Vote for Obama no matter what the policies are all about.

    Its pure genius. They learned well from the GOP. The GOP just needs to learn how to redefine the battle once again.

  • christoofar

    Negative has gotten us where we are today, divided into”far left” and “far right”.
    What a great place to be…and so it goes.

  • JSpencer

    Good analysis Joe. Conservatives who truly care about their party will concentrate on it’s positive aspects and spend less time searching for scapegoats or being willing fodder for the worst of thier radio and cable personalities. “United we stand, divided we fall” needs to once again become a greater part of our national lexicon. The McCain camp would do well to wake up to this (once obvious) fact.

  • elrod

    You are completely missing the point. Of course there are leftwing bloggers who have slung inappropriate mud at McCain. This isn’t about Americablog, just as this isn’t about Michelle Malkin and Ann Coulter. It’s about John McCain himself. When has the candidate himself so dissolved into a whirlwind of BS like this? Even Bush never sank this low in 2004, always leaving the dirty work to surrogates.

    What you don’t realize is that John McCain cannot win this election by an appeal-to-the-base mudslinging contest. His base is too small this year. He NEEDS Independents who flocked to him in 2000 as that year’s Perot model. His latest tirades only serve to alienate those Independents.

    Yes, he needs to fight. But he looks desperate right now, flinging charges that are blatantly untrue. His ad about cameras and visiting the troops is a complete lie. His defense of the ad is even worse – a deeper lie. Not stretching the truth or exaggerating a bit – a complete lie. And one that media WHO WERE THERE can dispute.

    Probably the worst thing for McCain is that he’s losing his honor through this. I know he cares about that, even if his advisers don’t understand the concept.

  • jwest


    You cite Andrea Mitchell and the Washington Post refuting McCain’s claim that Obama didn’t visit the wounded troops because he couldn’t bring the media.

    Why didn’t he visit them?

    There were certainly no rules preventing him. He claimed that people would perceive a visit as a campaign promotion, but that would be highly unlikely if he went alone out of concern for the troops.

    Big mistake on Obama’s part and no way to spin it.

  • Marlowecan

    Elrod said: “Even Bush never sank this low in 2004, always leaving the dirty work to surrogates…. Probably the worst thing for McCain is that he’s losing his honor through this.”

    Elrod, you are making an important point here. McCain has no Rove to organize overt/covert surrogate work.
    I don’t know why this is true…but it is very clearly true.

    Rove brutalized McCain in SC in 2000.
    It was a horror show of racist, homophobic smears. Bush kept his “honor”, I suppose, in that there were never any fingerprints. . . but it was a vicious win.

    Obama…and certainly his very adept campaign handlers…know very well the vicious attacks that have been made on McCain. But, like Bush/Rove, there are few visible connections between his campaign and overt or covert surrogates.

    McCain’s campaign lacks a Rove to allow him to win with “honor”.

    I believe this is McCain’s main weakness…he is having to fling the BS about Obama-hospital himself. Is he too egotistical to accept an evil genius/cutout?

    I fully agree with you. He is damaging himself.

    I would add, though, even if it were surrogates hammering Obama, McCain would be denounced with demands that he call off the GOP “attack dogs”…while KOS et al run unleashed.

    As Neocon says, the Democrats have defined this contest.
    Any criticism of Obama is unacceptable.
    John McCain, after a lifetime of service to the United States, is dismissed an angry old man, shouting at clouds (like Grampa Simpson – in a cartoon on one blog I recall)…while Obama floats above the clouds.

  • Rambie

    Joe, I think you missed a import part.: “…But some Republicans worry that by going negative so early, and initiating so many of the attacks himself rather than leaving them to others, Mr. McCain risks coming across as angry or partisan…”

    Sounds like these worried Republicans have no problems going negative — is it known as Rovian now? — it’s that he’s going negative TOO early.

    Marlow, so it was wrong of Rove/Bush in 2000 to smear McCain but it’s OK now for McCain to do it to Obama as long as he used a surrogate?

    There are plenty of blogs on both sides. To sit here and claim that only the far-left-wack-jobs have the market cornered is a lie. Clean your own house.


    “McCain has a black baby!” – FACT That type of smear job can work both ways. I hope Obama can stay above that type of mud slinging Rove worked so hard to perfect.

  • timr

    jwest, Obama did not visit the troops in Germany because his senate fact finding trip had ended, all his senate staff had gone home, and this part of the trip was purely political. The PENTAGON has said-many times if one had bothered to listen-that political trips are not allowed. The reason that Obama canx his trip was not because no cameras were allowed-per McCain view, which view I must point out, even the MSM(McCains base) says is a lie-but because he did not want the visit to be deemed political-at which point McCain jumps in and says that it is because Obama hates the troops- so Obama is damned if he does, and damned if he does not.-I have been watching politics since the JFK election in 1960. I have watched how, in both state and federal elections, the republician party has, over the years, gone from a party of ideas to a party of dirty tricks, mud slinging, lying, with nothing at all out of bounds.-Lee Atwater, as he was dying apologized to the dems for starting up the win at any cost campaigns-Republicians have become what they portray and demonize dems as, the win at any cost, the poison pen, the anonymous hate letter. Never articulating their vision, they only seek to destroy their opponent. And so it comes once more. I voted for McCain in the 2000 Mi primary, but there is no way that I will vote for him this year. In his blind pursuit of the presidency, he has thrown his honor away. He has joined the rove wedge way of winning. Just like bush, it looks like he has decided that he can govern with only 51% of the people and to hell with the other 49%. I had hoped to god that this cycle of destructive politics had run its course, and that the voters will see thru the mud and BS to get to the real kinds of things that need debate. Policies and vision. Don’t tell me how wrong/bad/traitorous the democratic person is. I want to know what your vision is, what you will do that is new and different from bush. So far all I see is a bush clone.

    Neocon, yes Obama is half black-so what? Does that bother you? It makes no difference to me. BTW I am a 60 year old white man. Retired. I have had black, asian, and latino-women and men co workers and supervisors. It makes no difference to me. As long as the person running for president is smart and has lots of common sense, that is all I want. I don’t care if he would be a person that I could sit and have a beer with-we did that, how have the last 8 years worked out for you?
    Obama has a muslim middle name.-and this is noteworthy why? Who cares-well besides racists, Fox TV and general haters that is. Guess what, it is a new world, and to the vast majority of people under 30-who I believe will determine who is the winner this time-it is nothing but sound and fury signifying nothing. The majority of young people know a gay person-most families have at least 1 or 2-a minority person-latinos will become,based on their current birthrates, the majority race in the US within 30 years, so what. I am a 2nd generation american, my wife is asian, one of my kids married a WASP, another married a AA(african american) so what. Everyone-as we all learned in the Army-bleeds red.
    Obama can’t bowl-again so what, who cares. I can’t bowl,( my korean/japanese wife belongs to 3 different bowling leagues), but the big sport among people under lets say 40 is basketball, and he plays that real well. He can’t bowl. Can McCain? Obama has a muslim name, and is, and has been a christian, yet is still thought by roughly 12% of the american people to be a muslim. Meanwhile, McCain seems to be more of a drive by xristian, yet no one in the republician party will call him on it. BTW, it is both silly and juvenile to continue-as all the republicians and right wing talk radio hosts do-to call a member of the democratic party a democRAT. I think that republicians who do this should grow up.

  • Silhouette

    Instead of exciting Obama supporters that McCain is running a “bad” campaign (right now), they should instead be worried.

    We know historically that McCain’s strategists, who are BigOil strategists one and the same, do not make mistakes…not this many…

    So Obama supporters should worry: “why isn’t McCain seeming concerned about his blunders. Why does he always have that cat that ate the canary smile?”

    People with aces up their sleeves often just can’t hide their ambivalence about other high cards turning up.

  • DLS

    The Media — Dem cheerleaders, fans of McCain when he’s a Dem Lite or when he defies the GOP but no longer fans of him now that the Messiah should be in the White House. Now McCain is “another Bush” [sic], Evil Republican…

    The cartoon doesn’t correspond to what is being said. However, the cartoon is more effective than all the “analysis.” That is how Americans, not the Team Obama Media, view McCain. zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

  • DLS

    “Since July 1 I have been on a drive through 3 states, sometime driving 650 miles in a single day.”

    650 is nothing; 800+ (routine for me) is not even impressive.

    What _is_ impressive is the rise in fuel prices that make even 250 miles painful.

  • Marlowecan

    DLS said: “650 is nothing; 800+ (routine for me) is not even impressive.
    What _is_ impressive is the rise in fuel prices that make even 250 miles painful.”

    Gaaah! You guys must be backed by Big Oil, or have Saudi relatives!!! Who can drive those miles this summer?

    What are you driving to absorb that kind of damage to your wallet? A Flinstones-mobile…? DLS, your feet must be hurting some 🙂

    Rambie said: “Marlow, so it was wrong of Rove/Bush in 2000 to smear McCain but it’s OK now for McCain to do it to Obama as long as he used a surrogate? ”

    Nope, evil either way. However, as Elrod noted, surrogates allow candidates to stay “honorable” (emphasis on the irony here). McCain is having to do his own mudslinging . . . while Obama has folks to do this job for him.

    Again, I have no idea why this is…other than McCain is running a pretty lame campaign all in all. Amazing that Obama is not light-years ahead.

  • pacatrue

    I think Obama is not light years ahead because many millions of Americans agree with McCain’s policies and admire his long history. There are real values and real policies that people care about. That’s one reason the dumb character attacks based upon fabrications anger me so. There’s a conservative philosophy that appeals to Americans. McCain needs to start arguing for it.

  • DLS

    “What are you driving to absorb that kind of damage to your wallet?”

    Oh, I don’t have a fuel saver like my brother bought last year (and is highly relieved now). I still drive my small pickup, admittedly a small, not a large one. My solution has been to stop driving 800+ miles! I don’t even take trips of 250 miles any more.

    I was surprised to find myself responding in this way as fuel approached the $2.00 rather than today’s $4.00 level. And at $4.00? I have to drive back to Iowa at least twice next month, and I dread that. I haven’t even gone from Detroit up to Mackinac (500+ round trip). Nor have I gone to St. Louis yet, to friends in Upstate NY, or to Washington, DC. Maybe I’ll take one rare trip to these places if I save up the funds first (after recovery from Iowa hangover). 800-1,300+ in a day? No way.

  • DLS

    “Amazing that Obama is not light-years ahead.”

    McCain continues his “default” or “survivor” campaign, weak as it is.

    What support he gets is as Pacatrue said, for basic conservative principles, which Obama does not represent; McCain’s support is not limited to the paranoid crowd.

  • DLS

    Incidentally, I thought McCain showed a bit better thinking by addressing Obama’s fluff reputation (which Obama is working to dispel, we all know, so don’t overreact to this fact) by picturing him as a celebrity like Paris Hilton or Britney Spears (also liked by the young). He was late in showing this ad, though. Plus, wackier Obama worshippers will promptly see racism in that ad — ignoring the obvious celebrity theme — and ask aloud, as the New York Times Dem flagship Obama worshipper outlet did, why is Obama being pictured with two white women? Covert racism, naturally.

    The New York Times is not just being a cult worshipper but prostituting itself (and its already “fallen” reputation).

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